What really matters in learning: features, benefits, or emotions?

Toby Harris

These days, whizz-bang platforms in the world of e-learning are aplenty. The problem is that enough good content to fill those platforms really isn’t. In fact, the typical experience of e-learning content has become so negative that, to many outsiders or first-timers, the word itself sometimes seems doom-laden and ill-fated.

I spend an unhealthy amount of my time listening to clients bemoan the appearance of that package of 400 courses they were offered by the last e-learning salesperson to call in. The conventional e-learning course has turned Neanderthal: it’s become an ossified form, a hangover from a bygone era.

This is partly because typical user-experience expectations have changed dramatically: people are now used to scrolling down pages on the web or on phones, so why do we continue packing content into static slides? An out-dated medium has begun to obscure the message.

We won’t solve necessarily this problem with a platform. The purpose of this article is to refocus attention away from the emphasis on feature-packed, mobile-optimised, social learning environments – and towards the creation of emotively charged learning content.

To do that, (and if we want to sell e-learning as a meaningful tool for personal development in a world where online experiences bring down dictatorships), we need to probe a little more into the relationship between features, advantages and benefits. Instead of the usual middle term, this article puts forward a different one: emotions.

A feature, I’m afraid, is not a why

Imagine an empty Facebook – no friends, no comments and no memes – and you are imagining the actual appeal to the learner of that shiny platform which looked so good at the Learning Technologies show. (Or you are imagining the final years of Friendster, MSN Spaces or Bebo).

But the continuing assumption that platforms somehow replace the content in them is what drives vendors to invest millions in developing clever platforms (and put them on sale at prices which are not so clever) whilst ignoring the most important person: the learner. She is not interested in features, but in benefits.

Dropping the learner into a platform which is fizzing away with a metro-style array of live streams, leaderboards and live commentary is all well and good. But if she doesn’t have a damn good reason to be there, if the experience isn’t intrinsically rewarding, it’s still an emotionally dead space.

Solving the mystery of ‘What’s in it for me?’

Last month in Inside Learning Technologies and Skills magazine, Nicholas Baum explained to us some of the principles of something called ‘me-learning’ in his article. He outlined the mechanics of how an e-learning course can become a space in which learners can visualise new behaviours in action: ‘Here’s where I am; here’s where I could be; this is what I need to do to get there’. Personalised input and personalised output via emotionally charged content is another way to put it.

The approach has been proven to work in courses such as that developed by Transport for London on mental resilience, where qualitative and quantitative evaluations drew a direct line from meaningful emotional engagement to massive return on investment. So how does it work? Where does the why really come from? What ‘buy-in buttons’ should those who design learning (and learning platforms) be pushing?

A revolution which has been gathering pace in the field of behavioural economics is highly relevant here. It’s changing the way that we are shaping the online world more generally, and e-learning needs to sit up and listen.

Traditional economics has treated the human as homo economicus, who is ‘Sovereign in tastes, steely-eyed and point-on in perception of risk’. The problem with this model is that ‘homo economicus is a rare breed.’[1] I would go further and say that the self-interested, calculating human doesn’t really exist a Sot all.  In fact, our brain chemistry motivates us to make decisions that aren’t necessarily rational or even self-interested. Our memories are structured around emotional peaks and troughs, not averages or a steady accumulation of benefits. The ‘endowment effect’ means, for example, that we’ll place a much higher price on a teacup that is ours, than on an identical cup which isn’t – and we even hold on to shares long after the point where it made sense to sell them. A sense of belonging is the trump card.

This complicates our thinking about features and benefits, and explains why the addictive learning environment can’t be as easily manufactured as we perhaps thought. It might make perfect sense to you why a learner would naturally engage with a platform and the content in that platform because it has social and game-based characteristics – that’s what creates a sense of reward, right? But your platform is an imposter: it doesn’t carry with it the same emotional highs or the sense of belonging as the one you based it on. It is a feature, emptied of emotional benefits.

Real benefits are derived from content experiences

Looking at one of the world’s most commonly used and powerful learning tools tells us that what drives engagement are benefits which are not necessarily logical, but are instead composed of feelings and experiential rewards. Wikipedia is a breathtakingly simple combination of useful learning and community collaboration; it’s become an unbelievably trusted source of information given that its validation is based on collective action rather than external authority.

Wikipedia shows us that all features should really do is facilitate the smooth delivery and collaborative production of content. Get the features right, in this sense, and they become effectively invisible. (Worth noting, of course, that Wikipedia uses scrolling and swiping, not page-turning.)

Wikipedia’s contributors are not motivated by self-interest, but by a sense of belonging and common purpose. Its users (by which I mean all of us) are motivated not only by utility, but by the fact that we have content experiences on Wikipedia which matter: discovering something about a company which allowed you to turn around a client meeting and form a new relationship. Or something more intangible: a late night which was the time your interest in Latin America was first piqued, and realised in the life-changing trip you took a few years later. This emotional endowment is why we do something very curious indeed: we go to Wikipedia when we have no particular ‘learning outcome’ in mind at all. We are seeking after a feeling more than a fact.

Time to go beyond learning outcomes

The implication of this is the uncomfortable truth which some LMS vendors don’t like to mention: spending your pennies wisely on an affordable open source option can do the job just as well as spending millions on a proprietary one. It also means that, instead of spending your time poring over pricing and feature lists, you should be thinking about the kind of content experience which is going to motivate your learners.

So what does really matter to learners: features, benefits, or emotions? The answer is not any in isolation, but all three together. Platforms and technology can play an indispensable role in delivering emotively valuable content experiences, but they won’t redefine the need for them out of existence.

To make e-learning better at changing behaviours, it’s time to start asking where the e-learning course or platform that you have planned fits into the emotional narrative of your learners’ lives. What mood state are you going to capture and utilise? Most importantly, how are you going to make a learner feel like it belongs to her?

Perhaps it’s time to start including emotional outcomes, as well as learning outcomes, in your next project specification.

Toby Harris

Toby is the creative lead and platform product manager at Saffron Interactive and an open source enthusiast. He likes it best when he is adding value to the elearning community, developing new thinking about how people development programmes and platforms can drive business performance and prove ROI.

Toby has extensive experience with learning management systems, a frenetic devotion to social media and consequently is able to keep a keen eye on best-practices in the ever-evolving world of elearning. His role at Saffron is to ensure that our team and our clients are continually developing best-of-class learning solutions.

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